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LIBERTY & MUSIC FOR ALL: Choral ensembles stand up for tolerance, justice, artistry

It’s largely by coincidence that the Kansas City Women’s Chorus and the Heartland Men’s Chorus have scheduled their Summer Concerts on adjacent weekends. But it’s win-win for Kansas Citians who care about the intersection of music and social justice: Each of these programs addresses broader issues that can often only be expressed through music. On June 3th at the Polsky Theatre, the Women’s Chorus performs Showtime: Pride! which in addition to Broadway tunes includes a commissioned piece, “We Love Who We Love,” with text and music by Kathryn Lorenzen, a moving piece that speaks to the mysteries of love and the ways in which society condones some types of love but not others.

Kansas City Women’s Chorus

Then on June 9th and 10th at the Folly Theater, the Heartland Men’s Chorus’ Indivisible: Songs of Resistance and Remembrance takes on the ambitious task of linking wartime heroism of Americans from all walks of life (African-Americans, gays and lesbians, and women in general) with today’s crisis of justice on our streets. The program includes the world premiere of a piece commissioned with the National World War I Memorial and Museum: Timothy C. Takach’s We, The Unknown tells the story of how the casket was chosen for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and speculates on whether that fallen hero might have been black, gay or just frightened.

Though the more established HMC has a longer history than its counterpart, the Women’s Chorus (formed in 1999 with about 25 women from all walks of life led by Stephanie Henry) has recently begun to ratchet up its profile. In 2015 it appointed choral mover-and-shaker Cynthia Sheppard as Artistic Director, who together with Executive Director Emily Marrin and a choir of nearly 100 women are striving toward new levels of artistic achievement and community involvement.

KCWC focuses as much on issues of justice for all women as it does specifically on LGBT issues. Yet by placing its concert during Pride Week it happily embraces its role in the community of those fighting for rights of all. (“Simply singing is not enough” is one of its mottos.) “Our focus has been on social justice, on giving voice to women, and on inclusiveness,” said Cynthia, who is also Music Director at Central Presbyterian Church.

Cynthia Sheppard

Like Heartland Men’s Chorus, KCWC has always opened its doors to everyone. “If you identify as a woman and can sing in our range, you can audition,” she added. KCWC also works with local charities aiding women and children, such as CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), which acts as liaison in the foster-care system.

“We actually have never been a ‘lesbian choir’: We have always been a women’s choir,” Emily said. “So we have women from within the LGBT community, from different faiths, different political orientations, different socio-economic backgrounds.” At the same time, Cynthia said, “We don’t try to diminish the fact that about half of the group are lesbians, and about half are not. … Everyone feels open to share about that. We don’t apologize that one of our affiliations is with the Gay and Lesbian Association of Chorus (G.A.L.A.), and that we participate in their international festival every four years, which is always a big event.”

HMC likewise feels it has “a responsibility to stand for broader issues of equality and social justice,” said Artistic Director Dustin Cates. True, the choir has traditionally taken stands on LGBT issues, “but we are always looking for ways that we can lift up all people, advocating for their needs and rights.”

Heartland Men’s Chorus / Photo by Cliff Schiappa

When HMC board member Rob Hill, a 20-year Army Veteran, approached the Chorus about the idea of a “war program,” Dustin admits he was wary of the idea. “Why would we, as a more left-leaning social-justice musical organization, do a concert about war?” he asked himself. But Rob was persistent and finally convinced the Chorus, partly by explaining the provocative true-life story of how the hero for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was selected. The year was 1921, and U.S. Army Sgt. Edward F. Younger was asked to choose from four caskets that had been exhumed from World War I cemeteries in France. He chose more or less at random, and that casket (now enshrined at Arlington National Cemetery) stands as a symbol of all those who gave their lives for freedom.

Dustin Cates

Upon mulling over the concept, Dustin and Rob and others began to think “cinematically” about Younger’s selection process—and speculated on a way to create a composition about inclusiveness. “What if we created a story line in which one of the soldiers was a coward, and one was African American, and one was gay,” Dustin wondered, “various roles that may broaden the appeal and make the story a part of all us—instead of just something that happened a long time ago?”

He decided the idea had legs. “And I said, Let’s find a composer and begin discussing how we might make something that could be meaningful from the perspective of the Heartland Men’s Chorus.” Tim Takach immediately came to mind for the commission, partly because of a powerful theatrical piece he had helped create in 2007 with Peter Rothstein (book and lyrics) called All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914.

But that’s not all: HMC’s concert also includes, in addition to an official performance by the U.S. Army Field Chorus, a cycle of songs by Joel Thompson called Seven Last Words of the Unarmed—a piece about seven black American men who have been shot to death in recent years. HMC thus hopes to honor not just the service of those in uniform but also “the idea of resistance,” Dustin said, “that gives us the rights that we have.”

It’s bound to be a controversial show, to be sure (when has HMC shied from controversy?), but it is a way not only of honoring those who protect us but also recognizing those who get caught in crises and crossfires. “Police officers are striving to protect us just as much as somebody on the battlefield does,” he said, adding that “we have a responsibility to think about it from all sides. We aren’t necessarily taking a stance for or against police by singing these songs. But what we are doing is saying: This can’t continue to happen, and we need to think about how we can address this as a country.”

—By Paul Horsley

For Showtime: Pride! tickets go to www.kcwomenschorus.org. For tickets to Indivisible call 816-931-3338 or see www.hmckc.org.

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook (paul.horsley.501) or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.



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